The Death of a Legend: Baron Manfred von Richthofen & the Vickers that may have killed him.

The death of Baron Manfred von Richthofen represented a seminal moment in the First World War. The details remain controversial even today. The chin wound seen in this post-mortem photograph stemmed from striking the butt of one of his Maxim guns when he crashed his Fokker Dr.I triplane.

The bullet was of .303-caliber and weighed 174 grains. It entered the man’s chest underneath his right armpit, shattering the ninth rib. The projectile then yawed and tumbled through the right lung, shredding the associated pulmonary vasculature. The bullet subsequently tore through the anterior aspect of the heart and great vessels before exiting lateral the left nipple. Given the catastrophic damage, the man’s blood pressure dropped precipitously. He was unconscious in seconds and dead within a minute.

The Red Baron was the most famous fighter pilot who ever lived.

The death of Baron Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen on April 21, 1918, was and is shrouded in mystery. Arguably the most popular fighter pilot who ever lived, von Richthofen was a victim of his violent profession. Though only twenty-five when he died, Richthofen shot down eighty confirmed Allied aircraft.

Origin Story

Here we see von Richthofen as a toddler. For some unfathomable reason, it was common at this time to dress all young children as girls.

Manfred von Richthofen was technically Polish. Born in Kleinburg near Breslau in western Poland, Manfred was the son of Prussian nobility. His father was Major Albrecht Phillipp Karl Julius Freiherr von Richthofen, and he had an elder sister as well as two younger brothers. One of his brothers, Lothar, finished the Great War with forty aerial victories himself. Young Manfred began his formal military training at age eleven.

Manfred von Richthofen began World War 1 as a horse cavalry officer.

At age nineteen he joined an Uhlan Cavalry unit. Early in World War 1 a young von Richthofen served as a cavalry reconnaissance officer on both the Eastern and Western fronts. He fought in Russia, France, and Belgium. Once the war devolved into static trench combat the German Imperial Army no longer had need of large numbers of cavalry soldiers. As a result, von Richthofen was transferred to the supply service.

This most flamboyant of aviators very nearly spent the war managing supply stores.

Frustrated with life in the supply trains von Richthofen applied for the Imperial German Army Air Service later known as the Luftstreikrafte. He purportedly wrote on his application, “I have not gone to war to collect cheese and eggs…” Despite his impertinence, the young Prussian cavalry officer was accepted.

A French Farman machine similar to this one was likely the Red Baron’s first kill. It was, however, unconfirmed.

From June to August of 1915 Manfred served as an observer on reconnaissance missions over the Eastern Front. Once transferred to France he purportedly shot down a French Farman airplane with his tail gun. However, as the plane crashed behind French lines it could not be confirmed.

Oswald Boelcke fathered Boelcke’s Dicta, a respected early treatise on fighter tactics.

After a chance meeting with legendary German fighter pilot Oswald Boelcke, von Richthofen applied for pilot training in October of 1915. Four months later Manfred convinced his brother Lothar to follow him into the Fliegertruppe. Early in his career, Manfred seemed like a pretty lousy pilot.

Von Richthofen scored many of his aerial victories in Albatross fighters. The first C.III he flew operationally he unceremoniously destroyed.

Manfred crashed on his first solo in a tactical aircraft, an Albatross C.III. However, he learned quickly and likely scored his first aerial victory over Verdun in April of 2016. German standards for claiming victories were stringent. As this French Nieuport went down over enemy territory it was not verified. A week after this event von Richthofen flew into a thunderstorm against the orders of his superiors and barely escaped with his life.

Aerial combat during World War 1 was ferocious and pitiless. Fliers frequently achieved momentary greatness before dying young in a blaze of glory.

In August of 1916 von Richthofen joined Oswald Boelcke’s elite Jasta 2. On September 17, 1916, over Cambrai, France, von Richthofen scored his first confirmed aerial victory. A month later von Richthofen saw his hero Boelcke killed in a midair collision with another German aircraft.

Major Lanoe Hawker was a respected and successful British fighter pilot who fell to von Richthofen’s twin Maxims.

Von Richthofen was not known for his aerobatic prowess. He was rather a methodical aerial hunter and a superb marksman. He would typically attack an enemy aircraft from up sun and behind while his squadron mates provided cover. In November of 1916 while flying an Albatross D.II fighter von Richthofen shot down and killed Major Lanoe Hawker, one of Britain’s most successful fighter pilots.

The red Fokker Dr.I triplane has been inextricably linked to von Richthofen. However, he scored most of his aerial victories in other machines.

Manfred von Richthofen has become associated with his famous red Fokker Dr. I triplane, but that was not where he spent most of his combat time. Most of his aerial victories were scored in Albatross fighters. Despite the Dr. I’s remarkable agility, the lumbering triplane was fairly slow. Von Richthofen was an ardent supporter of its replacement, the Fokker D.VII, but he died before having a chance to fly it.

The Baron’s Brush with Death

Dr.I triplanes came from the factory in a streaked green camouflage. Von Richthofen and his pilots frequently decorated theirs in bright garish colors.

In April of 1917 while in command of Jasta 11 von Richthofen shot down 22 British planes, including four in a single day. By June he had taken command of Jagdegeschwader 1 and its four separate fighter squadrons. This organization was known as von Richthofen’s Flying Circus based upon its tents and trains as it moved about the front providing aerial fire support. Throughout this period von Richthofen had his fighters painted bright red as both an identification aid for his own pilots and for its intimidation value.

This is the leather flying helmet von Richthofen was wearing when he caught a .303 bullet to the head from a British tail gunner. The round inflicted a ghastly wound.

On July 6, 1917 von Richthofen was flying an Albatross D.V against a flight of British F.E.2d two-seat fighters when he caught a bullet to his head. The resulting four-inch wound left him temporarily partially blind and badly disoriented. Von Richthofen barely recovered from a spin and executed an emergency landing near German troops.

Von Richthofen left the hospital against medical advice a mere two weeks after incurring his head wound. Much to his consternation, his physician insisted the young German hero be accompanied to his squadron by a personal nurse.

After multiple surgeries to remove bone splinters von Richthofen left the hospital against doctor’s orders only two weeks after being wounded. However, the combination of the injury and cumulative combat stress took its toll. The great ace began suffering recurrent headaches and regular post-flight nausea. Acquaintances also noted a marked change to his temperament.

The End of von Richthofen

Pilot Lieutenant “Wop” May was an inexperienced Canadian Camel pilot on the day von Richthofen chased him across no man’s land.

On April 21, 1918, Manfred von Richthofen was flying his red Dr. I triplane in pursuit of a British Camel piloted by Canadian Wilfrid “Wop” May. May had just engaged von Richthofen’s cousin Wolfram, and the Baron apparently allowed the intensity of the moment to cloud his judgment. He followed May down to low level above Allied trenches.

Captain Roy Brown was ultimately given credit for shooting down von Richthofen.

At the same time, another Canadian Camel pilot named Arthur “Roy” Brown made a diving attack on von Richthofen’s brilliant red triplane. The RAF ultimately gave Brown credit for downing the Baron, but forensic evidence makes this unlikely.

Brown’s Sopwith Camel was armed with a pair of air-cooled Vickers machine guns.

The single .303 bullet that killed von Richthofen came from below and to the right, an orientation that makes it the likely result of ground fire. Von Richthofen’s triplane flew on for about two minutes after Brown’s engagement, something unimaginable given the severity of his wound.

The Germans saturated the crash site with artillery but failed to destroy the Baron’s crashed triplane. Souvenir hunters stripped the machine in short order.
Both of the Baron’s Maxim guns were found to be inoperative when examined in detail. One gun had a stuck case. The other had a broken firing mechanism.

Credit for the fatal shot has alternately been claimed by Sergeant Cedric Popkin armed with a Vickers gun as well as WJ “Snowy” Evans and Robert Buie wielding Lewis machineguns. Brown’s Camel also mounted a brace of air-cooled Vickers guns. It could of course also just been some nameless grunt with a rifle. Regardless, in his last few seconds of life von Richthofen made a forced landing in which his triplane was not badly damaged. However, souvenir hunters quickly ravaged the plane.

The Weapons

The Vickers gun was a British adaptation of the classic Maxim recoil-operated action. Ground versions were water-cooled. The aerial sort was air-cooled and sported a ventilated barrel jacket.

The British Vickers water-cooled machinegun was itself an adaptation of the classic Maxim action that drove most of the belt-fed automatic weapons used on all sides during WW1. The Vickers entered service in 1912 and was served by a six to eight-man crew. Despite its 53-pound all-up weight, the tripod-mounted Vickers gun was a remarkably effective battlefield implement.

The British Vickers gun was almost unnaturally reliable.

In August of 1916, the British 100th Company of the Machine Gun Corps fired their ten Vickers guns continuously for twelve hours. Using 100 barrels they fired a million rounds without a single failure. The Vickers gun continued in British military service until 1968.

The pan-fed Lewis gun was much more mobile than the tripod-mounted Vickers. Note the battle damage to the near end of the barrel jacket on this veteran example.

Like Hiram Stevens Maxim, the designer of both the British Vickers and German MG08 machineguns, Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis was also an American. His eponymous machine rifle entered service in 1913.

The Lewis gun’s odd bulbous architecture earned it a place as a stormtrooper weapon in the epic sci-fi movie Star Wars.

Unlike the belt-fed, water-cooled Vickers, the Lewis gun was a pan-fed, air-cooled design. The characteristic fat tubular barrel jacket found on ground variants of the Lewis gun actually contained long aluminum cooling fins of dubious value. Aerial versions of the gun dispensed with this component.

Though limited somewhat by its pan-fed mechanism, the Lewis gun was used extensively in ground, vehicle, and anti-aircraft mountings.

Unlike the recoil-operated Maxim design, the Lewis was a gas-operated weapon driven by a clockwork-style spiral spring contained within the semicircular housing on the bottom of the gun. The Lewis gun fed on either 47 or 97-round pan drums and cycled at between 500 and 600 rounds per minute. The 28-pound Lewis could be fired by one man on the assault and offered significant enhancements in both mobility and firepower.

The Rest of the Story

Von Richthofen, like countless millions of other young men fighting in World War 1 died young and hard.

WW1 represented the world’s rude introduction to warfare on an industrial scale. Despite millions of lives lost, there yet remained vestiges of the chivalry that characterized combat in previous eras. As a result, von Richthofen’s body was afforded full military honors.

Von Richthofen’s opponents held the Red Baron in the utmost respect, affording him a formal military funeral.

No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Service presided. Six of their officers served as pallbearers, while a guard of honor fired in salute.

Von Richthofen’s former enemies held the ace in high esteem.

Nearby Allied squadrons sent memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed with, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”

This marker commemorated von Richthofen’s grave throughout World War 2. Note the bullet marks.

Von Richthofen’s body was years later moved to Berlin and given a state funeral by the Nazis. His imposing gravestone read simply, “Richthofen.” This marker was damaged by gunfire from East German border guards shooting at escapees as they fled communism during the Cold War. In 1975 von Richthofen’s corpse was reinterred yet again in the Richthofen family plot in Wiesbaden, Germany. It was a fitting end for one of the most flamboyant fighter pilots of all time.

The Red Baron inspired generations of combat aviators, died a hero’s death, became a household term, and bequeathed his name to a pizza company. In the end, he was just another young man who bled out and died for a hopeless cause.

  

About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Matt August 8, 2019, 5:01 pm

    Huh???? “Manfred crashed on his first solo in a tactical aircraft, an Albatross C.III. However, he learned quickly and likely scored his first aerial victory over Verdun in April of 2016.”

  • Peter Miles August 6, 2019, 9:32 pm

    The Baron’s fame stretches even further — This July a Swedish heavy metal band that specializes in telling historically correct stories primarily with a military history theme came out with an album commemorating the Great War. Yes, I said that correctly. The band is Sabaton and the song is, appropriately, “The Red Baron”. If, like me, you spent your teen years somewhere in the 1980’s, the music itself is quite familiar. Somewhere between the Ramones and Metallica, with a splash of the London Boys Choir. No kidding on that too. Also, they sing in English, a nice touch.

    Anyway, the song opens with a cathedral pipe organ, nee electronic keyboard synthesizer, producing a fitting tribute to the Baron’s noble ancestry and, as the author above mentions, the chivalry and aristocratic formality of the era. Check it out if you want your kids to think you’ve flipped. But seriously, this is an important addition to the historical record of a fascinating character.

  • Will Drider August 6, 2019, 6:02 pm

    Another enjoyable illistrated read. Well done. I wouldn’t cast doubt on Browns Kill as combat aerial manuvers can cause all manner of angles to be presented toward the attacker. We have May chasing Wolfmam, the Baron dives then chases May and further Brown dives on the Baron. With this string of aircraft in pray or predator mode (with the intent of gaining advantage): to be flying straight and level is absurd.

  • David Hardy August 5, 2019, 8:33 pm

    Back in the mid-1980’s I was present when a phone call to the Vancouver Police Dept. in B.C. asked for someone to collect a number of guns from a senior citizen. The senior citizen was contacted & visited by members of the VPD. In her basement were a number of small arms and a Vickers aircraft mounted machine gun plus two Maxim aircraft machine guns. The Vickers & one of the Maxims were complete while the other was missing some vital parts. The lady was asked why she had these firearms. Her response was that her (now deceased) father in law brought them back from WW I. His name was (Capt.) Roy Brown, of the Royal Flying Corp. I have a picture of myself with the Vickers. The guns were, apparently, donated to the B.C. Aviation Museum in Langley, B.C. Lost touch years ago, but still have my photo. Anyone interested is welcome to follow up &, hopefully, re-locate them.

  • KMacK August 5, 2019, 2:22 pm

    He was an example of “Live hard, die young, and have a good looking corpse,” only he didn’t. One does have to respect the mortally wounded Richthofen guiding his plane to a decent landing even though he would never be able to climb out of the cockpit once he was down. Literally he “died with his boots on.”

  • Fergus August 5, 2019, 1:15 pm

    The only man man who dies in a hopeless cause is the one who dies in bed at home rather than serve to defend his home and hearth. He is a hopeless creature that no one will remember. It is why we remember men like this ace and the men who fought in WWI rather than the cowards who bray peace and seek the havens of academia.

    • Methadras August 5, 2019, 2:31 pm

      Poignant and well said. I’d rather die on my feet, then laying down or on my knees. The real test of a man’s mettle isn’t about his bravery or courage, but in those times of doubt and hopelessness, their will evaporates those clouds like a laser beam and then perseverance against unbelievable odds and come out the other side whole and better for it. Sometimes not, but no one will understand these men until you’ve done what they’ve done.

    • Peter Brown August 5, 2019, 5:52 pm

      What? Did willy clinton die??

  • Ray laherty August 5, 2019, 12:51 pm

    Great story from a great writer. How the Left must hate him, given his hunting, gun loving and Veteran background. Not to mention his Old School work ethic that equals that of three men.

    • KMacK August 5, 2019, 2:27 pm

      This is a superb telling of history, kudos to the author.
      P.S. I’m a Democrat with a fair-sized Gun collection and I go to the range on a weekly basis.
      Don’t judge all of us “Leftists” by the oral diarrhea affecting most of the current crop of “contestants” oops – wanna be Candidates – for President. They no more represent the majority of us Liberals than Trump does.

  • Lloyd Dumas August 5, 2019, 12:19 pm

    God bless the funny looking dog with the big black nose. Put credit where credit is due.

  • Alan Robinson August 5, 2019, 10:50 am

    Not all Brit aces held the Red Baron in high esteem, upon hearing of his death one notable Brit ace remarked “I hope he burned the whole way down”.
    Not a nice thing to say, as that was one of the greatest fears of many pilots at the time.

  • Brian August 5, 2019, 10:12 am

    Every year on Halloween the Red Baron shoots down Snoopy…

  • Chris Adams August 5, 2019, 8:21 am

    It the photo of the stormtroopers, it appears the trooper carrying the Mg34 is toting it upside down — bi-pod-up. Odd.

  • Cirrua August 5, 2019, 7:28 am

    Thank you for this article shedding light on the man himself. It’s very interesting to learn who the man within the myth was.

  • catawampus August 4, 2019, 12:32 pm

    Years ago I was stationed at EDOS for two months with the Legion Estrangere, the base also called Sleisshiem airfield is within walking distance of the Barons castle. The airfield was a Luftwaffa base in ww2 and had a number of unusual features, one was that it could be completely flooded on short notice to look like a lake from the air. There were large underground aircraft hangars as well as an operations building 14 stories underground, there was also a small replica town constructed to further confuse bomber aircraft flying over.

Leave a Comment

Send this to a friend